Workplace religious discrimination, intentional or unintentional, happens daily in companies of all sizes and industries. However, religious beliefs and practices do not affect employees’ ability to accomplish tasks and execute their responsibilities up to standards.
Despite this, many employees experience this type of discrimination, either from their customers, colleagues, managers, or employers. But religious discrimination is against the law, and employees have the right to fight against such unfavorable treatment in their workplace.
In this article, we will discuss religious discrimination, its types and examples, and ways an employee can prove they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace based on their religion.
What is Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?
Religious discrimination refers to the unfavorable treatment of an employee or a group of employees for reasons related to their religion or belief. This includes commonly recognized religions with well-known cultures, such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism, as well as specific denominations within these religions. It also includes lesser-known faiths or sects, such as Scientology, Paganism, and Rastafarianism.
Belief isn’t just limited to religious beliefs; it includes any philosophical belief, such as atheism, agnosticism, spiritualism, or humanism. Therefore, treating an employee differently because of their lack of religious belief can also be seen as discriminatory behavior.
It is against the law to treat an employee less favorably than another employee because of their religion. Legally, this type of discrimination is covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. The Act also requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices of an employee or a candidate unless doing so would create an undue hardship upon the employer.
Aside from being illegal, workplace religious discrimination can harm an employee’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being and create a toxic work environment for all employees, regardless of their religion or creed. An employee who is discriminated against on religious grounds can suffer from depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty relating to others. They may feel shame or guilt for being unable to live up to the religious standards of their employer.
Moreover, workplace religious discrimination is often mixed with race and gender discrimination, resulting in a highly hostile work environment. Such an environment often leads to low morale, high turnover rates, and violent incidents among employees.
Religious discrimination in the workplace can be present in hiring and firing, salaries, promotion opportunities, employee benefits, team-building, and other social activities at work.
What is a Reasonable Accommodation?
Employers are required by law to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless doing so would cause a burden on the business operations. This means an employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice their religion.
Some examples of common religious accommodations are flexible scheduling, job reassignments, voluntary shift substitutions, and modifications to workplace policies or practices.
Examples of Religious Discrimination in the Workplace
There are four types of discrimination that can happen in the workplace:
1. Direct Discrimination – When an employee is treated less favorably than other employees because of their religion or the religious and/or philosophical beliefs they hold. Direct discrimination includes both perceptive and associative discrimination.
2. Indirect discrimination – When an employer has a policy, procedure, or way of working that unfairly disadvantages those of certain religion or belief.
3. Harassment – When an employee is subjected to unwanted conduct related to their religion that has the purpose of degrading, intimidating, humiliating, or violating their dignity in any way.
4. Victimisation – When an employee is treated unfairly because they’ve complained or have taken legal action against religious discrimination or harassment at work or supported a claim or complaint made by another employee (acting as a witness).
There are several ways in which job applicants and employees can be discriminated against in the workplace. Some common examples of direct religious discrimination include:
- Not hiring a candidate because of their religious beliefs
- Excluding a candidate from hiring because they may need a reasonable religious accommodation or have a name associated with a particular religion
- Paying an employee less or refusing to give them employee benefits because of their religion
- Having stricter promotion requirements for an employee of a certain religion
- Refusing an employee a customer-facing role because they wear religious clothing (perceptive discrimination)
- Refusing an employee a flexible working request because they don’t share the same religion as the employer
- Choosing an employee for redundancy because they spend time socializing with a certain religious group
- Disciplining or dismissing an employee because they’re dating a person from a certain religion or a sect (associative discrimination).
Examples of indirect discrimination include:
- Requiring a dress code that excludes employees who wear religious items of clothing, such as Muslims or Sikhs
- Banning wearing religious items, such as the crucifix necklace worn by Christians or the Kara bracelet worn by Sikhs
- Requiring employees to work on their religious days, such as Jews on a Saturday, Muslims during Ramadan, or Christians on a Sunday.
Harassment in the workplace is any form of bullying behavior by the employer or other workers because of someone’s religion or belief, while victimization can refer to anything from being characterized as a troublemaker to being disciplined or dismissed for complaining about unlawful conduct.
For example, colleagues could tease a Muslim employee relentlessly for taking prayer breaks, and eventually, someone can complain to their manager. If the employee’s manager then refuses the employee a well-earned promotion because they are not a ‘team player,’ this would serve as two separate but related instances of workplace religious discrimination.
How To Handle Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?
Employers are responsible for religious discrimination in the workplace, even if they are unaware that it is happening. Complaints about workplace religious discrimination could lead to lawsuits and costly penalties. That is why employers need to take serious action to stop any form of religious discrimination in their company. Here are some steps to handle this form of discrimination in the workplace:
1. Conduct Fair Job Interviews
In interviews, employers should ensure nondiscriminatory treatment by asking all candidates the same questions, only inquiring about matters directly related to the job position.
2. Acknowledge Religious Practices
Employers should include various religious and cultural holidays on a calendar to help set work schedules. They should be mindful of such dates when planning meetings or events and raise employee awareness of upcoming faith-related events.
3. Post Religious Discrimination Notices
A good way to prevent workplace religious discrimination is to post notices throughout the office, describing what religious discrimination is and saying it will not be tolerated in the workplace. It is good to note that anytime the EEOC settles a workplace religious discrimination case, they require that the employer post notice about religious discrimination and explain the complaint process to employees.
4. Give Religious Discrimination Training
One of the reasons why religious discrimination happens in the workplace is because employees are unaware of what type of behavior makes it illegal. Employers should provide training on religious discrimination and teach their employees through demonstration what religious discrimination is, emphasizing that it’s unacceptable in their company. This way, employers can provide information on the law as well as on their company policy in this matter.
5. Grant Time-off To Employees For Religious Reasons
Employers should be flexible with religions that require worship at specific times. For example, they can allow employees to use their lunch break for worship even if it is normally at a different time. Also, they can allow employees to use personal (paid or unpaid) leave for religious holidays.
6. Adopt a No Tolerance Policy
It is always beneficial to stress that religious discrimination will not be tolerated in your workplace, even if it seems obvious. Employees need to know that the company will not be negligent when addressing issues and cases of religious discrimination. By doing this, you are helping employees feel more secure about practicing their religion while at work.
7. Create a Clear Complaint Process
Defining a clear complaint process is another great way of addressing religious discrimination in the workplace. It can have a deterrent effect since employees will know that it is possible to complain about religious discrimination and that the company backs up its complaint process policy. As a result, employees may be less likely to engage in discriminatory behavior.
8. Explicitly Address Religious Discrimination in Your Employment Policy
An employment discrimination policy is a must in every company. When creating an employment discrimination policy, employers should specifically address instances of religious discrimination, such as the company’s stance on religious dress and styles in the workplace, which can prevent misunderstandings and complications down the line.
9. Accept Attire and Grooming Tied to Religious Beliefs
Some religious practices, such as wearing a hijab, beard, or turban, are protected by law. Employers should accommodate religious attire and other symbols when there are no health and safety risks for the employee with the attire or other workers.
10. Provide a Prayer Room During Working Hours
Employers should try to accommodate employees’ religious needs by having a separate room for prayer, meditation, and reflection.
11. Offer Different Meal Options
If possible, employers should consider the dietary requirements of their employees during company lunches, meetings and events by including vegetarian, halal, and kosher options. Employers should also provide other drink options for those who abstain from alcohol at such events.
What is Legally Needed to Prove Religious Discrimination in the Workplace?
The law recognizes two distinct types of workplace religious discrimination:
- The failure to accommodate religious beliefs, and
- Disparate treatment
1. The Failure to Accommodate Employees Religious Beliefs – Reasonable Accommodation
An employer is responsible for reasonably accommodating employees’ religious beliefs, including all aspects of religious observance and practice. A religious belief cannot be a matter of personal preference but one of deep and sincere religious conviction, shared by an organized religious group and related to daily living. If an employee has a religious belief or religious practice that conflicts with the performance of their employment responsibilities, then they are entitled to reasonable accommodation. For example, if their religion requires them to refrain from working on Sundays, then a reasonable accommodation might involve changing their schedule to allow them to work on Saturdays instead of Sundays.
If an employer states that they cannot reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observance or religious practice without undue hardship to their business, then the employee is given the opportunity to show that the reason for not accommodating their belief was pretextual and not a legitimate reason. In this case, an employee must establish three things:
- The employee has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employer’s requirements
- The employee has informed the employer of their sincerely held religious belief and the conflict created by the religious belief
- The employee’s religious belief was not accommodated by the employer even though they could do so without undue hardship.
It is also important to note that an employer has no right to subject an employee who requested a reasonable accommodation to adverse action.
2. Disparate Treatment
Disparate treatment is the unfavorable treatment of an employee because of their religious beliefs. This type of workplace discrimination may come in the form of adverse employment actions such as refusing to hire or provide training, denying promotions, disciplining, denying equal compensation and benefits, and firing. Disparate treatment also includes workplace harassment based on religion. Religious harassment may consist of offhand remarks about religious clothing such as a head scarf or yarmulke, mocking an employee’s beliefs or lack of beliefs, or attempts to proselytize in the workplace.
In order to establish a case of religious discrimination on the basis of disparate treatment, an employee must prove the following:
- They are a member of a protected class (a recognized religion)
- They have suffered an adverse employment action
- The non-members of the protected class (a recognized religion) have received more favorable treatment than the employee in question.
Once an employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer must provide a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision. If the employer manages to do that, the employee must then demonstrate that the proffered reason was just a pretext for unlawful religious discrimination.
Regardless of their religious beliefs, employers must ensure that they don’t directly or indirectly discriminate against employees because of their religion, lack of faith, or association with anyone of a certain religion or belief. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with New York employers. Employees are often harassed, belittled, insulted, denied benefits and better work schedules, and more, all because of their religious or philosophical beliefs. But they can fight back against religious discrimination.
To find out whether you have a case worth pursuing, feel free to contact Cilenti & Cooper today. We treat every case with the attention and care it deserves and can fight for your rights from beginning to end. We offer a free consultation to all of our prospective clients, so you have nothing to lose.